Zoi Maroudas-Tziolas is a mom on a mission to make baby food more nutritious -- and better tasting, too.
Maroudas-Tziolas is the founder of the Alaska company Bambino's Baby Food. Maroudas-Tziolas' family moved to Alaska in the '80s from a Greek island village off the coast of Italy when she was 4 years old.
"Like every ambitious immigrant, my parents wanted to create opportunities for their children," she said. Soon after settling in Anchorage, they opened Spenard's iconic Pizza Olympia across from REI.
I went there recently, and right when I opened the doors and walked into the restaurant I was greeted by the aroma of simmering carrots, onions and rice. Maroudas-Tziolas greeted me with a huge smile, like we were long-lost friends. We headed back to the kitchen, a place that shaped who she is today.
Maroudas-Tziolas grew up cooking with her family and working in the restaurant -- her earliest lessons were taught through food. "Food as health and medicine was a value instilled in us by my parents," she said. We exchanged childhood stories as she gently stirred a batch of her Googly Carrots baby food, a recipe based on traditional foods and influenced by her Mediterranean heritage.
Maroudas-Tziolas makes organic fresh frozen meals for babies and toddlers, without additives, preservatives or GMOs. The foods are also kosher, and there are gluten-free and vegetarian selections available. She said the idea behind creating meals with vegetable and seafood bases is to help parents introduce kids to naturally savory foods from a young age, before they are introduced to processed sugar and table salt. Working with local farmers and sourcing Alaska seafood, she's created a line of food baby food aimed at delivering the most nutrients possible without sacrificing flavor.
"Adults should think it tastes good too," she said.
Maroudas-Tziolas enrolled in pre-med courses while at university. She saw firsthand the link between nutrition and healing while working with elderly patients and noticing they often wouldn't eat their food. After convincing the hospital to let her re-create the meals, they noted a marked increase in eating and quality of life. Within a month of changing their diets, she said the patients were healthier and happier.
"Meals became a time for conversation," she said. "Something to look forward to instead of dreading."
Hospitals and schools are places one might expect to find high-quality food. However, although there is progress, many of these places still serve their patients and students processed meals, which are cheaper and easier to make. Maroudas-Tziolas noticed the same trend in the baby food industry when she had her first child, Constantine.
When you look at Bambino's ingredient list, it's pretty simple. "I think when you look back to traditional foods, you see that food was pure and natural," she said.
Designed for children ages 4 months and older, Maroudas-Tziolas works closely with pediatricians and allergists to develop her recipes. She believes that providing key ingredients at just the right time in a baby's development can help prevent food allergies and sensitivities. She also strives to provide the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to the development of the brain's neurotransmitters, along with other key nutrients essential in the development of the brain, bones, muscles and vision.
After her ingredients are cooked and blended, Maroudas-Tziolas pours the mixture into star-shaped molds and freezes them. "You would need to feed your baby five to seven jars of (conventional) baby food in order to get enough nutrients," she explained. "With Bambino's you only need one of these stars for a meal, shape-tested to be best for teething little ones." Plus there's less waste, as each package comes with 10 meals.
The business is Alaskan to the core, from the sourcing of local ingredients to the production to the printing and packaging. Her Hali Halibut line picked up several awards at the 2016 Symphony of Seafoods contest, an annual contest held by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation to recognize Alaska seafood products, including the grand prize and Anchorage people's choice.
To make products more affordable and convenient for parents, online orders can be made by the case (vegetable based meals run about $55 for a month's supply, fish and halibut options are about $89-$90). Each week Maroudas-Tziolas buys produce from the farmers market and makes batches fresh.
We sat in the sun eating fresh baklava made by her parents. Thick with honey and nuts, each mouthful was like biting through a crispy cloud. I tasted rich cinnamon and commented on it. "It's a traditional flavor on our (Greek) island," Maroudas-Tziolas told me. In between bites, we discussed food allergies, the most recent studies from the New England Journal of Medicine and our summer garden projects. She shared a video from her last visit to Greece, when she harvested olives to make cold-pressed olive oil.
At the end of the day, for Maroudas-Tziolas, it's about food and family.
"It's what drives me," she said.
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.